Trent Baalke is having a monster year.
On Friday, the 49ers extended his contract through the 2016 season, this coming a few weeks after he won the NFL’s Executive of the Year award.
Almost every move he made in 2011 worked out. It was like he was on a heater at a craps table in Vegas and he was hitting ten the hard way over and over again.
Here are the top-five things he did that made his past 12 months such a monster.
5. Let Takeo Spikes walk. Spikes was a free agent and the leader of the defense. He figured to be one of the first players Baalke resigned. But the Chargers offered him a three-year contract worth just $9 million, and Baalke didn’t match it, surprisingly. Instead, he turned the inside linebacker job over to his third round pick from 2010, NaVorro Bowman, who had started one game in his brief NFL career and was set to earn $490,000 in 2011. Bowman ended up the seventh-leading tackler in the league and an All-Pro.
4. Let Aubrayo Franklin walk. For four years he was the Niners’ nose tackle – an essential position on their 3-4 defense. Like Spikes, he seemed to be a player Baalke just had to re-sign. But he didn’t. Instead, he gave Ray McDonald a five-year $20 million contract extension and let Franklin sign with the Saints for one year, $4 million. McDonald had only started nine games in his four-year career. Letting Franklin walk shook up the whole line. It moved Isaac Sopoaga to nose tackle (he had been playing end), and it made McDonald a starter. Some wondered if the Niners D-line would be as good as it was in the past, Well, they were better against the run, and they got a better pass rush, too – McDonald had 8 sacks in the regular season and playoffs combined.
3. Let Dashon Goldson try to walk. Baalke offered him a five-year deal and he turned it down, thinking he could get more. He couldn’t. No one wanted him. So he came back to Baalke and signed a one-year, $1 million contract, and then he had his best season as pro, intercepting six passes and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Whenever Goldson didn’t play, the Niners pass defense looked poor. Backup free safety Madieu Williams was too slow to cover ground, and Reggie Smith took poor angles to passes. Goldson brought the pass defense together with his size and speed, and he was Baalke’s second-biggest bargain behind Bowman.
2. Sign Carlos Rogers. Baalke cut Nate Clements before the season started to save money, so he needed a new No. 1 cornerback. Nnamdi Asomugha was the obvious choice, but the Eagles signed him to a five-year, $60 million contract. Johnathan Joseph was a good Plan B, but the Texans signed him to a five-year, $48.75 million contract. Baalke needed to find a corner all the other GMs were overlooking. He found Carlos Rogers. He gave him a one-year, $4.25 million contract, and then Rogers had a better season than both Asomugha and Joseph. Rogers caught six interceptions and made the Pro-Bowl. On first and second down, he covered the opponent’s No. 1 receiver and on third down he covered the slot guy. He did both very well, which is rare. He was the perfect cornerback signing in 2011.
1. Draft Aldon Smith. This pick made some fans irate. It was a reach, they said. The 49ers could have traded back and gotten him. They should have drafted the cornerback from Nebraska, Prince Amukamara.
Aldon Smith was a project, these fans explained. He was a defensive end in college. Baalke was drafting him to play 3-4 outside linebacker. With no offseason, there was no chance Smith could contribute in 2011, and so he was a waste of a pick.
But, then he almost broke the rookie record for sacks, finishing with 16 including the playoffs. He didn’t even play that much – just in Nickel and Dime formations as a pass rusher. That was all the Niners needed from him his rookie year. He gave them the pass rush that transformed their defense from good to great, and he will rival Patrick Willis as the team’s MVP for years to come.
Honorable mention: Signing David Akers. He broke the NFL record for most field goals in a season (44), and he also broke the 49ers record for most points in a season (166). Baalke signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract before the season, the same contract the Chargers gave Spikes. Once again, Baalke spent his money wisely.